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Father of Frostburg player: 'No one is to blame' for son's death

It should have been such a happy occasion for Ken and Kristin Sheely of Germantown. They were moving their daughter, Keyton, into her dorm room Aug. 22 for her freshman year at Penn State. Then Ken's cell phone beeped.

It was a call the Sheelys will never forget. A voice on the other end said Derek Sheely, a senior fullback on the Frostburg State football team, had been injured in practice. He was being flown to a hospital in Cumberland. The injury was serious.

Just before the call, recalled Ken Sheely, he and his wife "were really high because both our kids were excelling and were great kids. Within an hour later, our world came crumbling down."

On their frantic ride from State College, Pa., to Western Maryland, the Sheelys learned from doctors at the hospital that Derek had suffered severe head trauma. He needed surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. The prognosis was not good.

"We were praying we would make it to the hospital before he passed away," Ken Sheely said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Derek Sheely survived the surgery in Cumberland and was flown to the University of Maryland R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center. But the 22-year-old honor student and a team captain died there Sunday night. And now his family is left to mourn a promising life cut far too short, even as Derek's death underscores the growing debate about how to lessen head injuries in football.

"Derek was passionate about football and loved playing the game, and loved his teammates," Ken Sheely said.

Derek had played four years at Northwest High in Germantown, he added, and then transferred from Penn State to Division III Frostburg State after his freshman year just so he could play the game again.

Frostburg State says Derek was participating in routine contact drills in full gear the day he was injured. As a fullback, he wore No. 40 and was mainly a blocker on the first-team offense. No one on the team could recall Derek taking a particularly violent hit that day, Ken Sheely said. But at some point, Derek went over and told the coaches he wasn't feeling well.

He collapsed as he was being helped off the field.

"If there was a violent hit," said Ken Sheely, "it seemed to occur earlier in the drill."

Derek never regained consciousness. After he was flown to the hospital, his family was constantly at his side. Doctors there tried to relieve the pressure in Derek's brain through medication, by keeping his head elevated and through more surgeries.

At the hospital, a steady stream of visitors arrived to sit by Derek's bedside and console his parents and sister.

"I was blown away," Ken Sheely said. "At least 50 young people he played with in high school and college came to visit. … I know my son was an incredible person. But I didn't know how many people he touched and helped in his life.

"He really was a great kid. You think about kids that age, how they get in trouble. But he didn't. I never heard him say a bad thing about anyone."

Ultimately, though, Derek's injuries were too severe to overcome.

"He passed away on Sunday, Aug. 28, at 10:32 p.m.," Ken Sheely said. "His family was at his side."

Ken Sheely took pains to point out that he doesn't blame the Frostburg coaches for his son's death.

"The doctors [at Cumberland] said the coaches acted very quickly," he said.

And he doesn't blame football, either, even as he's been fielding calls from the media asking for his views about the preponderance of brain injuries in the brutal sport.

"This isn't someone getting hit by a drunk driver," he said of Derek's death. "This is an accident. No one is to blame. If someone can learn a lesson from this, that would be great. But our focus now is on Derek's life and our daughter."

For its part, Frostburg State is still trying to determine exactly what happened to Derek Sheely on the mild summer morning Aug. 22.

"Once medical professional make a final determination as to the circumstances of Derek's untimely death, the university will review such findings as may be available to us, as well as our existing procedures to ensure that FSU is following every contemporary and appropriate standard regarding athletic practices," the school said in a statement.

As for the football team, players and coaches are still reeling from the events of that day.

"I talked to some of the players today," said Liz Medcalf, a school spokeswoman. "They're all very sad and very upset. But they're all trying to hang together. And they're all going to his funeral."

A memorial service will be held Thursday at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg. Visitation is at 2 p.m. A service will follow at 4.

"I've always been a football fan," Ken Sheely said. But "it's going to be really, really hard to watch from now on. Especially someone with the No. 40 on his jersey."

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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